Writing memoir: Creating art from our lives

By Karen Kenyon


I didn’t intend to write a memoir, or shorter memoir-like personal essays—but I think what we are to write presents itself, and rises like an underground lake, dampening the soil and grass. You can’t get away from it.

I avoided writing about a difficult experience at first—for as long as I could. After my husband died at age 38 I felt I couldn’t write at all. In fact, when a few days later I wrote in my journal, “Dick has died…” the words were tiny and so small they were hardly readable.

Gradually I began to look for books that held words of comfort—words that told not the same story of loss as mine, but a similar one. I felt so alone.

I found a book called simply "Widow," by Lynn Cain. It was a personal story of a young wife with children, whose husband died.

It gave me some solace, because here was another woman whose husband died at a relatively young age. She had young children. I had my young son.

Being a young widow is a world unto itself. There is no one to identify with. You don’t fit.

On an outer level I eventually made attempts at going out in the world. But people in that age bracket sometimes divorce, but few die. My experience was so different. Perhaps that’s another reason I turned inward toward the pen and paper.

Years have gone by now since I wrote "Sunshower," and recently I taught a 9 week course in Writing Memoir at the UC San Diego Extension. A young widow was in that course, and though now happily remarried, she yearns to write about her loss—to help other young widows, for that very reason—to reach out and say, you are not alone.

So, I guess that’s part of my point—that writing can be there when nothing and no one else is. My book, "Sunshower," took me through my “unfinished business” as they say. I had to face feelings I was still working on, and dealing with.

But writing memoirs can of course be about happy times too—about your travels, or about childhood (the light and the dark). And in addition, some memoirs are humorous or witty!

Writing memoir can also be about creating a home on paper, as another woman from that UC San Diego Extension class is doing. Her childhood as a military offspring had no real roots—so many moves, schools, new friends.

Writing a memoir can ground us or anchor us as we make the experience ours.

We somehow frame the experience much the way babies learn to see. Instead of a diffuse experience—the shapes, the colors, eventually the naming takes place.

Of course, our memoirs are just one version of the story. Someone else would write a different story. And so would we—on a different day, in a different year. But a memoir is your truth and perspective, at a particular time.

Our memory changes, and we don’t remember the same thing the same way. In fact every time we remember, the thoughts are changed.

Jonah Lehrer writes in “Proust Was a Neuroscientist” that “…memoirs do not directly represent reality. Instead, they are imperfect copies of what actually happened, a Xerox of a Xerox of a mimeograph of the original photograph.”

I believe in this ever-changing examination of our lives, creating art from our lives, sharing the process.

When my book came out, it not only gave me a step toward closure – it also helped integrate the experience into my life, and it strengthened me because, I guess, I now “owned my experience” in the jargon of the day.

In truth the experience of writing did alter me. I was not just the person who experienced this tragic loss. I was also this stronger person who wrote about it.

And as in all journeys, I had helpers—my wonderful agent, the late Jane Jordan Browne; and my amazing, intelligent editor, Richard Marek (an imprint publisher through G. P. Putnam). I was no longer alone.

Just as any of our slippery memories change, even as we try to pin them down, I think if any of us decides to write a memoir, whether for publication or not—believe me, we will never be the same. There will be the beauty of reflection, and the “aha” moments of epiphanies. We can’t help but see our lives in a new way.

If we want to change and grow, then writing about where we’ve been can be part of that path.

Then we will no longer be in that same place—but will be somewhere else—new, and full of the light of awareness.

Extension continues to offer outstanding instruction in Memoir Writing I, along with many other writing classes and programs.

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